Viewpoint: The Petr Principle
In past years as I crossed the country on lecture tours, I met a number of libertarian groups, and I heard one question above all others: "What can I do to fight for liberty?" The question came from people in a variety of professional fields, and it usually turned out that the questioners felt, rather desperately, that because they were not political theorists and economists they had no means of fighting for their freedom. This is a serious fallacy, and over the years it has had unfortunate consequences. It has tended to create a movement full of spurious political theorists and amateur economists who spawn illiterate "theoretical" literature and anxiously role-play at being freedom fighters.
What is still relatively rare in the libertarian world is the individual who does not pretend to be either a political theorist or an economist, who has built steadily on his own specialized professional base, and, in the process, has become a powerful political force. A magnificent example of such a person (whom I do not know but by whose work I am greatly impressed) is Petr Beckmann—the Colorado engineer who has for years been fighting for nuclear energy in the United States. Although his primary purpose is not the furtherance of a free market philosophy—his foe is the Luddite and the technology-hater who is strangling our energy sources—he is actually doing more for the cause of liberty than all the amateur theorists in the libertarian movement put together. His publication. Access to Energy, is one of the most powerful libertarian documents in the country.
The plain fact is that an exclusive concentration on the theory and economics of liberty is not the only kind of battle to undertake today. There is no guarantee in any complex problem that the political dimension is the essential cause of that problem or that the State is the essential or fundamental villain. That assumption, so widespread among libertarians, is often a guarantee of superficiality. Liberty is not a philosophical primary; it is a derived value, and its roots lie deep in a great network of other values—metaphysical, epistemological, ethical, etc. When liberty rots, that means that much else in civilization is rotting, too. Often—and conceivably most of the time—a loss of liberty is just a symptom of a yet deeper problem; and the perception of that loss of liberty is just a surface way of grasping a cultural development that is infinitely deeper and more terrible.
What, you may ask, is deeper and more terrible than a loss of liberty? The answer is: The death of civilization itself. For decades it has been clear, at least to some, that western civilization itself was degenerating and that we were slowly entering a new Dark Age. For all the outcry over such horrors as 20th century totalitarianism, that perception has been extremely rare. One must, at a minimum, have some notions of what western civilization is and on what it depends to reach such a disturbing conclusion. Those who have reached it do not necessarily share the same political ideas on all subjects. Far from it. But whatever their differences, they share that one crucial perception in common: an awareness that civilization itself is under attack. They know that a war has been launched by neo-primitives against reason, logic, and productivity; against science, literature, and art; against individual and moral responsibility; and against political liberty. However passionate such people may be about liberty, they are unfailingly aware of this broader civilizational context, and when they weep, they do not weep for the loss of liberty alone. It is my own view that if there is still time to reverse these harrowing trends, they can only be reversed by people who fully grasp their magnitude and profundity. Those who perceive the problem as strictly political are doomed to fail precisely because they have not diagnosed the full extent of the malady they seek to combat. The specialist who fights directly on these fundamental civilizational fronts may be doing something far more valuable than the individual who assumes that the problem is purely political. Political issues—and liberty is a political issue—are only one aspect of the wider calamity.
Increasingly I have come to question the amateur libertarian focus on the political dimension. Such a libertarian is like a man who is fighting the command structure of a great ship, slashing away at the admittedly wrong and authoritarian details of the "system"—while totally ignoring the fact that the ship itself has a gigantic, gaping hole beneath the water line and is sinking. There is something out-of-contact in such a fighter for liberty, who, all too often, does not appreciate those who are frantically straining to man the pumps. Both on this hypothetical ship and in society itself, the battle for liberty verges on the meaningless unless one is also fighting for civilization that both makes that liberty possible and gives it content.
Too often that content is taken for granted by libertarians. To put the question directly: What is the meaning of liberty to 20th century Americans? Or, even more simply: What is liberty for? Would you, for example, be willing to live in total political freedom in a world of mongolian idiots? Or in a world of superstitious primitives? Or in a world of stone-age savages? Some people, I suppose, would say yes, and they doubtless deserve such a destiny. Most of us, however, if we made it imaginatively real to ourselves what such an existence would be, would rather be dead. Why? Because our liberty in such a cultural context would be of little value to us. Theoretically we would be free to speak, but there would be no minds to receive our thoughts. We would be free to create, but there would be no souls to respond to our creations. We would be free to invent, but there would be no intelligences to appreciate or use our inventions. We would all become shrunken creatures imprisoned by the very limitations of the culture around us and unable to exercise the potentialities within us that we most cherish. To an overwhelming degree our lives, our actions, our goals, and our very identities are functions of our civilization. And when we speak of liberty, we actually mean: liberty to function freely within this civilization.
That is why it is erroneous to concentrate exclusively on the political dimension of existence—even on liberty, our most supreme political value—and to ignore or minimize the question of the horrifying decline of the civilization around us. Individual liberty and modern civilization are interlocking values. They emerge from the same philosophical roots. And it is as important to fight to save crucial aspects of our culture as it is to fight against certain inroads into our freedom. Indeed, depending on the issue and the degree of cultural degeneration, it may be more important to fight on the deeper civilizational front than on the specific political front. Certainly it is a grave error to conceive of the battle that confronts us as a battle for political liberty alone. The libertarian movement will not be mature and fulfilled until it has been widely understood that the problems of a rotting civilization are not solely reducible to the political-economic dimension. There is something hopelessly arid and even pathetic about such reductionism in a battle against a cultural catastrophe.
Those who fight for the crucial rational values of western civilization—those who fight against the new breed of savages and for the highest possible standards in their own fields of work—may be contributing as profoundly to the wider battle as is an economist or political theorist. One can only make an impact on society in the area of one's competence. It is far more important to be a competent engineer, or educator, or journalist, and to build upon that base of competence, than it is to be an incompetent theoretician of liberty. This truth—dramatically embodied by Petr Beckmann, who has converted his own professional competence into a mighty weapon—merits your serious consideration. In his honor, I shall call this truth "The Petr Principle." Properly understood, it can liberate the suppressed and distorted energies of thousands in this movement who are trying to fight in ways for which they are not prepared—and who may be professionally lodged on a crucial barricade without being aware of the challenge that faces them, of their ability to meet it, or of the immense significance of their potential contributions.
Contributing editor Edith Efron writes a regular column for TV Guide and is the author of several books. Her viewpoint appears in this column every third month, alternating with those of Alan Reynolds and Tlbor Machan.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Viewpoint: The Petr Principle".